Blu-ray Release: November 22, 2022 (standard release, following the May 18th DiabolikDVD.com 2-disc exclusive)
Audio: English and Italian LPCM 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English and English SDH
Run Time: 96:39
Director: Lucio Fulci
Naples, Italy: An idealistic cigarette smuggler, Luca (Fabio Testi), runs into problems when a sadistic drug-dealing gangster from France decides to muscle his way into operations. As he tries to wipe out the competition, all hell breaks loose and the bodies start piling up! Luca joins forces with rival smugglers and the local mafia to counteract the power play, which only increases the body count until the explosive gunpowder and gut-bursting conclusion! (From Cauldron’s official synopsis)
In the early 1980s, Lucio Fulci was riding the highest high of his (then) 40 year career. Finally, after a run of popular spaghetti westerns, gialli, farcical comedies, and period melodramas, he had his first international mega-hit in 1979: Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters and Zombie 2: The Dead are Among Us, 1979). While he’d dabbled in graphic violence since the ‘60s, the extreme gore of Zombie became a calling card and the one thing a new legion of viewers came to expect from his work. As a result, producers and financiers were happy to pay a premium for whatever Fulci wanted to make next, as long as it was gory, spooky, and included zombies in some capacity. This offered the director, who was already more than happy to shoot scenes of excessive and creative violence, a unique chance to cut loose with surrealistic, Gothic-themed horror movies, culminating in a trio of fan-favorites – City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: The Gates of Hell, 1980), The Beyond (Italian: ..E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà; aka: Seven Doors of Death, 1981), and House by the Cemetery (Italian: Quella villa accanto al cimitero; aka Zombie Hell House and Freudstein, 1981). But Fulci directed two other movies during this peak, three year period that tend to sit in the shadow of these elaborate masterpieces. One, The Black Cat (Italian: Gatto Nero, 1981), is slighted because it’s the least violent of his Gothic films and the other, Contraband (Italian: Luca il Contrabbandiere; aka: The Smuggler and The Naples Connection, 1980), is neglected because it isn’t a horror movie at all: it’s a poliziottescho.
Poliziotteschi – a portmanteau plural of poliziotto/police and the suffix esco/esque (singular: poliziottescho) and sometimes called Eurocrime or ‘polizieschi all'italiana’ – was born out of several attempts to recapture the box office glory of William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971), Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), Sidney Lumet’s Serpico (1973), and other New Hollywood cop movies (which themselves were inspired by French crime films of the ‘60s), but quickly grew into a reaction to a violent, specifically Italian wave of crime known as Anni di Piombo or The Years of Lead, which ran between 1969 and 1988, and included mafia warfare, political assassinations, failed neo-Fascist coups, and brutal clashes between far-left and far-right factions. The angst, anger, and bitterness felt by average moviegoing audiences during this tumultuous period led poliziotteschi down increasingly violent and sadistic paths that mirrored the turmoil and spoke to the audience’s fears, sometimes challenging their notions of authoritative corruption with real nuance and, other times, fulfilling their reactionary demands for Fascist cops wreaking vengeance on a cartoonishly evil criminal population.
It was strange enough that Fulci made a crime thriller in the middle of his horror renaissance, but poliziotteschi movies had also already peaked well before 1980. Of course, they still make crime-themed media in Italy to this day (it might be their biggest movie & TV export, as a matter of fact) and the Years Of Lead carried on to the end of the decade, but fickle tastes, new trends, and a slowly dying market, not to mention massive oversaturation, meant that more directors were actually following Fulci’s lead into gory horror than were recycling Eurocrime boilerplates. Fad fatigue aside, hiring post-Zombie Fulci to make a poliziottescho actually was a good and logical idea. After all, the genre had already grown progressively sadistic as filmmakers desperately courted increasingly jaded audiences, so why not stick the guy who made the movie about entrail-eating ghouls behind the camera? And Fulci didn’t change gears to fit the crime thriller mold, either; he kept right on developing his own nihilistic flavor of dreamy, decaying Gothic with cinematographer Sergio Salvati, who was onboard as Contraband’s director of photography. As a result, the film doesn’t look or act like any other poliziotteschi, even the moodier ones, like Umberto Lenzi’s Almost Human (Italian: Milano odia: la polizia non-può sparare, 1974) and Enzo G. Castellari’s The Big Racket (Italian: Il grande racket, 1976).
As for the gore that distributors wanted from Fulci, Contraband does not disappoint. Not only is it quite possibly the most brutal poliziottescho ever made – already a very tall order – but it is arguably Fulci’s second most shocking movie, after the absolutely abhorrent The New York Ripper (Italian: Lo squartatore di New York, 1982). There’s nothing as gross as City of the Living Dead’s intestine vomiting or Zombie’s splinter-based eye-gouging, but the violence is made personal by the borderline realism of crime fiction. Fulci’s gleeful obsession with the methodical deconstruction of the human body isn’t as much fun in this context. Stomach-turning highlights include the back of one character’s head being blown to pieces after he’s shot point blank in the mouth, a woman’s face melted by Bunsen burner, a thug boiling alive in a sulfur pit, an underling and prostitute being shredded by an under-bed bomb, faces and necks obliterated by bullets, and a slow-motion shotgun squib so bloody that even Sam Peckinpah might blush. The hardest scene to watch is a protracted assault and rape, something rarely, if ever, seen from Fulci’s horror films and gialli, but which had grown into a poliziottescho cliché as the genre continued embracing errant misogyny. The rape is consciously made all the more repulsive when it is contrasted with earlier scenes, where the victim, the hero’s wife, playfully rebuffs her husband’s advances and another, where a woman sexually assaults a shy man for titillation and laughs.
All the while, Contraband delivers exciting action scenes in the spirit of Castellari’s The Heroin Busters (Italian: La via della droga; aka: Drug Street and The Dope Way, 1977), Ruggero Deodato’s popular Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (Italian: Uomini Si Nasce Poliziotti Si Muore, 1976), and Massimo Dallamano’s Colt 38 Special Squad (Italian: Quelli della calibro 38 AKA Section de choc, 1976). Fulci was a great action director – as seen in his first spaghetti western, Massacre Time (Italian: Le colt cantarono la morte e fu... tempo di massacro; aka: The Brute and the Beast, 1966), and his sole entry in the Mad Max-inspired spaghetti-apocalissi movement, Warriors of the Year 2072 (Italian: I guerrieri dell'anno 2072; aka: The New Warriors and Rome 2033: The Fighter Centurions, 1984) – he just rarely got the chance to flaunt it. Contraband’s splattery shootouts are the parts people remember, but the boat stunts, in particular, are incredibly well-staged and edited. The duality of the director’s abilities and preoccupations is best summed up by biographer Stephen Thrower, who says in relation to Contraband: “[The film] sees Fulci demonstrating both the necessary directing skills to compete with mainstream product and the pathological taste for violence that would exclude him.”
Given that Fulci’s horror canon is largely designed to be narratively incoherent and evokes the overly formulaic quality of most poliziotteschi, Contraband’s storytelling is surprisingly thoughtful. The characters are well-rounded, their motivations well-established, and the important plot points neatly stated, further amplifying the distressing effect of Fulci’s fantastic and cruel carnage, because it’s all happening in a real world to real people with real consequences. The script is a group effort, beginning with Gianni Di Chiara and Ettore Sanzò’s story, original screenwriter Sandra Infascell, replacement screenwriter Giorgio Mariuzzo (who co-wrote House by the Cemetery with Dardano Sacchetti), and Fulci himself. Even a group of actual Neapolitan mobsters – who supplied the production with motorboats, acted as extras, took the crew out to dinner, and co-financed the movie – had some ideas and can reportedly be credited for the fact that traditional smugglers are the good guys and the drug traffickers are the bad guys. The best twist comes at the end when the hero runs out of allies and convinces a group of middle-aged Mafia types to come out of retirement and stage an ambush. It’s a clever idea that is well executed and it is a much-needed emotional relief, following the previous 90 minutes of depressing violence. Fulci himself shows up as one of the aging gangsters and is seen methodically cleaning his machine gun earlier in the film.
Italian Crime Filmography, 1968-1980 by Roberto Curti (McFarland & Company, 2013)
Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci by Stephen Thrower (FAB Press, 1999)
Apparently, Contraband was released on clamshell VHS in the US via Vestron imprint Walton and Mogul Communications, but it must have been exceedingly rare, because I remember it being all over bootleg tape websites during the early days of the internet. A completely uncut version finally hit DVD in 2004 from Blue Underground and, for nearly two decades, it remained a stalwart must-own for Fulci fans (though UK company Shameless Entertainment and Scandinavian company Another World also released good anamorphic options). Contraband is probably the highest profile Fulci film as yet unavailable in HD, making Cauldron’s debut a particularly big deal.
The 1080p, 1.85:1 image was restored from a 4K scan of the original negative and comes with a short disclaimer warning us about the condition of the materials and verifying that we didn’t get a Blu-ray sooner, because the negative was considered “unsalvageable.” Add to that the fact that Sergio Salvati’s photography is purposefully soft, foggy, and diffused. The effect isn’t as extreme as other Fulci films, like Conquest (1983) or Warriors of the Year 2072, but it’s still the kind of thing that digital transfers struggle to recreate. Despite everything stacked against it, I’m happy to report that this Blu-ray looks pretty good and, even at its worst, it is a sizable upgrade over standard definition versions. Details are more complex, the sharp edges are crisper, the blurry edges aren’t pixelated or posterized, and compression artifacts are minimized. Given the extreme qualities of the photography, however, the more important upgrades are found in tonal complexity, color correction, and lack of crush. DVD versions skew cooler, likely to match the look of Fulci’s Gothic horror movies, but this transfer exhibits more color diversity, more natural skin tones, and better contrast. As far as Cauldron’s warnings about the condition of the film, there are some upticks in dirtiness throughout, which usually rears its head as discoloration in the foggiest grain or darkening along the edges of the frame (I know there’s a name for this effect, but I cannot remember it). In general, I think that the Vaseline-smeared look of some shots is intentional and I didn’t notice any major tears or other artifacts.
Contraband is presented with English and Italian dubs, both in uncompressed LPCM mono. As per usual, the film was shot at a time when Italian filmmakers weren’t recording on-set sound, so all language versions were dubbed and there is no official language track. As far as I know, this is actually the first availability of the Italian dub on disc. Being most familiar with the English track, that was how I began the film. I didn’t miss much in terms of performance, because the English cast does a solid job (despite being handed some laughable lines) and few (if any) cast members dub themselves in Italian, however, I soon learned that the Italian dub features a cleaner overall mix with louder levels and less distortion. The real deal-breaker that led me to complete my viewing in Italian is that composer Fabio Frizzi’s music sounds infinitely better on that track. Not only are Frizzi’s efforts smoother and more dynamic, but the English dub mutes the underscore from a litany of sequences, all but erasing it from some. Contraband was the sixth of nine collaborations between Fulci and Frizzi. While maybe not as instantly recognizable as his Zombie and The Beyond scores, it does its job, giving audiences a driving funk main theme, a mournful lament for the many, many tragic deaths, and a disco single entitled “You Are Not the Same.”
Commentary with Troy Howarth, Nathaniel Thomson, and Bruce Holecheck – Howarth, the author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and His Films (Midnight Marquee Press, 2015), Mondo Digital’s Thomson, and Holecheck, owner of Digital Roadshow Productions (who acts as sort of a moderator) combine their expertise for a fantastic track that traces the film’s origins and Fulci’s career. The trio also discuss the end of the poliziotteschi genre, the historical/political basis of the plot, the careers of the cast & crew (including an in-depth look at the career of mysterious trans actress Ajita Wilson), similarities between Contraband and Fulci’s other films, international censorship, home video releases, and accusations of misogyny throughout Fulci’s career.
The Real Lucio (13:24, HD) – Screenwriter Giorgio Mariuzzo talks about his friendship and working relationship with the director over several years with emphasis on Contraband.
A Woman Under Fire (21:54, HD) – Actress Ivana Monti recalls her schooling and career, her early love for international cinema, acting exercises, appearing in Contraband, and working with Fulci.
From Stage to Slaughter (19:58, HD) – Actor Saverio Marconi chats about his rapport with Fulci and other directors, casting processes, learning from other actors on set, and a number of his films.
Lucio and I (17:52) – Cinematographer Sergio Salvati rounds out the new, Cauldron exclusive extras with a look back at his many years collaborating with Fulci and the director’s reputation for intensity and his highly cultured attitude.
Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered Vol. 1 interview gallery – These shorter clips were all conducted by Mike Baronas and Kit Gavin for the 2006 DVD collection:
Actor Fabrizio Jovine (5:34, SD)
Actor Venantino Venantini (5:11, SD)
Cinematographer Sergio Salvati (5:51, SD)
Composer Fabio Frizzi (2:07, HD)
English and Italian trailers
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.